Most versions of the “Letter” open with an Author’s Note explaining that it was composed as a response to a “published statement by eight fellow clergymen,” while Dr. King was incarcerated in a Birmingham jail. As a result, he was forced to initially write the text on newspaper margins, and only later on paper provided by his attorney. He insists that outside of “polishing it for publication,” the letter has been essentially unaltered from what he originally wrote (169). (See the “About Letter from Birmingham Jail” portion of the ClassicNote for a more in-depth discussion of the letter’s creation.)
The “Letter” is dated April 16, 1963, and addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” Dr. King explains that he has read the recent statement published by clergymen in a Birmingham newspaper, describing Dr. King’s recent activities in the city as “unwise and untimely.” Though he does not usually respond to criticisms – he receives far too many for that to be practical – he believes these men are “of genuine good will” and hence do their criticisms deserve an answer (169).
He first acknowledges the criticism that he is one of many “outsiders coming in” to cause trouble (their words). He explains his purpose: he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), based in Atlanta but operating throughout the South. He describes the extent of the organization’s reach, and then explains that one of its affiliates in Birmingham had invited the SCLC to “engage in a nonviolent direct-action program” when racial issues grew difficult there. The SCLC answered the call, and hence does Dr. King insist that “I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here” (170).
It is easy to fall into hyperbole when discussing Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and one can see the virtues that encourage that hyperbole almost right away. Even ignoring its great influence throughout decades and the world, the letter is a masterpiece of didactic, legalistic, emotional, and most of all moral, argument. Its thrilling language and heightened content are only underlined by its meticulous structure, which reflects Dr. King’s high-quality education and focused mindset.
To best understand the “Letter,” it is important to first understand the audience for whom Dr. King was constructing the message. This transcends the historical background, which is detailed more specifically in the “About ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’” section of this ClassicNote. In fact, the audience should be understood as universal man, as filtered through the clergymen to whom it is most directly addressed.
Though the letter was not immediately either successful or influential, it became within a matter of months famous for its articulation of Dr. King’s methodology and mindset. Over time, he did revise it, publishing the definitive version in his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait. It is telling that he removed the names of the clergymen from the published version (whereas his initial message more deliberately name-checked them), since it reveals the significance of his ambition. He meant this to be a statement for universal justice, not a specific treatise on an Alabama city in the 1960’s. He meant in almost explicit terms for it to stand in the tradition of prophetic prison letters, the most famous of which are those attributed to Paul of Tarsus and included in the New Testament. As Paul’s letters were written to the Romans to explain the nature of Christian faith and perseverance and yet have survived as an inspiration for posterity, so is Dr. King writing and thinking of a much greater audience than the clergymen to whom the letter is addressed.
And yet the nature of the letter reveals that the message is filtered through the address to the clergymen, even if it is intended for more than just them. In particular, the clergymen and their situation help us to understand that Dr. King is writing not necessarily to all men, but to white men whom he assumes have an inherently good nature. As will be discussed in more detail below, there are incessant strains of optimism throughout the “Letter” even at its grimmest, all of which suggest that Dr. King believes that many men – especially those who describe themselves as “moderate” – have a natural sense of justice that simply needs to be directed properly. In other words, this is not a letter addressed to “Bull” Connor, or to other men whom Dr. King would not have been so naïve as to have addressed this way. Instead, this letter is meant for the race that holds the power, and specifically for those in that race who do have ‘better angels’ that can be appealed to. Finally, it is worth noting that Dr. King stipulates a Christian morality throughout the letter, something that would perhaps be less efficacious without the pretense of an address for the clergymen.
Acknowledging such an audience, Dr. King begins the letter with a marked lack of emotion and a pronounced focus on legalistic logic. In Gospel of Freedom, a book-length study of the “Letter,” professor Jonathan Rieder describes the first half of the “Letter” as the “Diplomat” portion, suggesting that Dr. King was deliberately controlling his tone so as to achieve his desired ends of changing hearts and minds. The phrase “diplomat” is useful because it reminds us that this letter is not a personal expression of inner demons, but rather a deliberately constructed epistle designed for a purpose. That it so successfully manages its tone is all the more impressive when we recall that Dr. King indeed began writing it while locked in solitary confinement, on scraps of paper smuggled to him.
The means by which he addresses the clergymen confirms this deliberate purpose. The first paragraph of the letter refuses to take the high ground, and stipulates the goodwill of the clergymen who wrote the initial attack on King and the SCLC. With a deferential address of “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” Dr. King suggests at first that he writes the letter because these men deserve an answer to their “sincerely” stated criticisms. In other words, he traipses in niceties rather than confrontation, at least in this portion of the letter. To have begun the letter as a tirade would perhaps have been honest and justifiable, but it also would have worked against his attempt to change minds. He does not want to frighten or upset an audience that might be inclined to listen to arguments they have not previously considered. Of course, this is not to suggest that Dr. King did not actually want white allies or that this is only a rhetorical tactic, but his restraint over a topic that clearly moved him is undeniable.
Without doubting King’s honest desire to be unemotional and logical, it should also be considered that his restraint has a distinctly racial element. There is an archetype in American politics and entertainment of the ‘angry black man,’ which has been used from the days of slavery through today, to stoke white fears of an uncontrollable black rage. In avoiding a fiery tone, Dr. King was likely quite conscious of and deliberately undermining the particular hatreds and fears that such a tone might inspire.
In addressing the first complaint – that he is an “outsider” – Dr. King’s tone is particularly measured and legalistic. Note the way that he describes and defines the organizational structure of the SCLC, as though presenting evidence for a judge to consider. There is no overt attempt to argue that he has the freedom to go wherever he wants; instead, he merely shows the connections he has to Birmingham, and in a reasonable way answers the issue. It functions almost as a question of jurisdiction in a legal case, in which a party must prove that he is bringing his legal action to the proper geographical court. That level-headed, unemotional appeal begins to grow more complicated and fascinating almost immediately afterwards.